Pilgrims of the Sword - EXCLUSIVE Extract
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Pilgrims of the Sword - the Official History of the Knights Templar is now at the printers. Here, as an exclusive preview, is a whole chapter. 'Good and faithful servant' deals with the last years of the Order's founder, Sir Hugh de Payns. It gives you a very good flavour of the style of the book, and the way it so expertly blends historic facts, analysis, modern parallels and an insightful and thoughtful consideration of the myths which have grown up around the Templars.
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Good and faithful servant
For the time being, however, Hugh de Payns was well satisfied with the results of the Council. Armed with the increased credibility provided by papal approval, he visited various noble households seeking resources and volunteers for the Order.
Riding with a small but devoted bodyguard, from castle to castle, and noble to noble, he worked with passion, patience and skill, laying the foundations of the great monastic and military institution of the Temple right across Western Christendom.
Over the years ahead, thousands of pieces of land, ranging from single fields to entire estates, were given to the Order. Initially mainly in France, England and Spain, the practice spread until the Templars owned estates in most countries in Western and Central Europe.
Among the most generous of the early donors was the Count of Champagne, no doubt encouraged by the fact that the Templar leadership was made up of his own feudal vassals. Land he donated near Troyes became the site of the Order’s first Preceptory.
Other magnates, including the Duke of Brittany and Eleanor of Aquitaine, also gave large areas of land, alongside valuable rights to build mills, extract minerals or hold markets. Eleanor exempted the Templars from having to pay harbour fees at La Rochelle and the French port became the Order’s main western naval base.
All such donations fed into the completely new concept at the heart of the Order. The core task of each of these local properties was to support a provincial fund-raising and supply base to bolster the frontline operation in the Holy Land. The idea stood the test of time, so that the national or regional Preceptory remains the primary building block of our Order to this day.
The sheer number of such properties - and their absolutely central role in financing our Order’s first Long War - meant that large numbers of brethren were unable to go to the Holy Land.
According to Piers Paul Reid in The Templars ‘the norm was not military service in Palestine, but estate management and semi-monastic life in western Europe.’ The variety of places in which later Grand Masters had served before their election, however, is evidence of rotation between administrative duties and active service.
Men ordered to do the vital but unglamorous work of maintaining operations in the West were inevitably sometimes frustrated. One Templar stuck in a backwater in England complained that ‘we are preceptors of sheep!’
The widely spread nature of Templar holdings, and the need to send messages between them, as well as the regular movement of funds and men to Jerusalem, impelled the Order to develop an international organisation from its earliest days. By the time the process had developed fully, the huge network of properties, business interests and military bases went a long way to justifying the modern claim that the Knights Templar were the first international corporation.
That level of sophistication was still in the future, but Sir Hugh was making good progress. By 1131 the Grand Master returned to Jerusalem, with fresh recruits, donations, and a formal Rule for the Knights Templar to live by. They were now an accepted part of religious life in the West as well as the East.
Before he left, de Payns appointed a number of lieutenants to manage the rapid growth in the West. The variation in the titles adopted suggests that the embryonic organisation was still in flux. The whole thing was growing so quickly, in previously untested wasters, that aspects of the job description and procedures were still being worked out ‘on the hoof’. The important thing though, was not the titles or finer details of responsibilities, but the quality of the men put in charge.
Payen de Montdidier, one of the first nine Poor Knights, took on responsibility for the area north of the Loire, which had long marked the southern border of Paris-run France. Hugh de Rigaud was put in charge in the famed city of Carcassonne, Peter de Rovira in Provence, and a future Grand Master, Everard de Barres, in Barcelona.
The new recruits who accompanied the Grand Master on his return to Palestine were drawn principally from France and England. Even in the latter, Norman-French was the normal and socially accepted tongue of the upper class from which they came. Like Anglo children growing up in India under the Raj, most would have picked up the peasant English dialect of their home area from nurses and childhood playmates. Within the upper class and the Order, however, normal conversation, business meetings and battle commands alike were invariably in French.
On their arrival at Jerusalem they were received with great distinction by the King, clergy and barons of the Latin Kingdom. A Grand Council was convened, at which Hugh de Payns played a central role in making plans for the extension and protection of the Christian territories.
By now, the grand old man of the Order was well into his sixties. Past wounds, and the legacy of a lifetime of hardship and extraordinary journeys in all sorts of weather, were taking their toll.
The ageing Grand Master must have taken great comfort from the open letter sent to him by St. Bernard of Clairvaux, De Laude Novae Militiae. The most renowned cleric of the era probably wrote this in 1135, after a degree of chivvying by his old friend far off in Jerusalem.
We have already considered the document praising the ‘new knighthood’, so need only once again stress its importance. This was both highly symbolic and deeply practical.
A fresh wave of land grants followed the renewed endorsement by the great cleric and his papal ally. Those in England were confirmed by King Stephen on his accession to the throne in 1135. Among these was a grant of the manor of Bistelesham made to the Templars by Count Robert de Ferrara, and the grant of the church of Langeforde in Bedfordshire, made by Simon de Wahull, Sibylla his wife and their son Walter.
The extent of royal favour was highlighted by the gift by King Stephen’s wife Matilda of the valuable manor of Cressing, in the fertile farmland of Essex, north east of London. As the years went by, grants of land by neighbouring wealthy families made this one of the Order’s most productive agricultural properties.
To store the bountiful harvests, the monks and the craftsmen they employed built the largest timber-framed barn complex in the whole of Europe. Amazingly, the Grade 1 listed barley and wheat storage barns at what is now Cressing Temple survive to this day; they are a ‘must’ for any modern day Templar visiting southern England.
Before his departure from England, Hugh de Payns placed a Knight Templar at the head of the Order in the country. The new office was given the title of Prior of the Temple, and its holder was the procurator and vicegerent of the Master.
As with his counterparts elsewhere in the West, it was his duty to manage the estates granted to the fraternity, and to send the revenues to the international headquarters in Jerusalem. He was also delegated with the power to admit English members into the Order, subject to the control and direction of the Master. He was to provide transport for such newly-admitted brethren as were called to the East.
As the houses of the Temple increased in number in England, sub-priors came to be appointed, and the superior of the Order in this country was then called the Grand Prior and, later, Master of the Temple.
Meanwhile, on the sharp end of the operation in Palestine, the merger of monastic discipline with armed force was already turning the Templars into a truly ground-breaking part of military history.
Each man was supplied with three horses, sword, shield, chainmail, battle-axe, war-mace, lance and a dagger. The equipment was the very latest in military high technology.
The older, secular knights who joined the Order were already experienced fighters. Even such men, however, needed training alongside the raw recruits as they were drilled to fight as a unit. Each Commandery and Preceptory had a training field, on which the men practiced keeping order as they charged and manoeuvred.
They certainly knew that keeping strict discipline was a matter of survival. The Templars were forbidden to retreat unless in receipt of a direct order to do so. This could not be given unless they were outnumbered by at least three to one.
As long as they fought as a cohesive unit, their highly effective armour meant that such odds, while high, were by no means impossible. But if their formation was broken, isolated men were likely to be overwhelmed and dragged down to death or capture.
So the new recruits were drilled relentlessly to rally to the Templar battle standard, the renowned Beauceant. This was a red cross over two solid squares, one black and one white. The black signified the world of sin they had left behind, while the white denoted their vow of chastity and the purity of lives dedicated to fighting for Christ.
The glorious war-banner was entrusted to its own designated standard bearer, the Balcanifer. He was supported by a select body of knights, sergeants and esquires, who took an extra oath to protect the colours of the Order, and never to let them fall into the hands of the enemy.
The name ‘Beauceant’ came from the medieval French injunction and battle cry: ‘Be noble’ or ‘Be glorious’. It was now applied to a vertical banner, hanging from a horizontal rod at the top so that - unlike a flag - it could always be seen, even when stationary and on a windless day. It had to be visible at all times, particularly after a charge or in the confusion of battle, when the men needed to be able to see the rallying point in order to regroup.
Such tactics were routine in Muslim armies and the innovative Normans had also mastered feigned retreats and the rapid wheel around. But discipline and order on this new level were unknown in warfare in the West. Indeed, it did not become commonplace in Europe until the Swedes introduced it in the Thirty Years War in Germany, from whence it spread to England to revolutionise the cavalry of Cromwell’s New Model Army.
As long as the Beauceant was still held aloft on the battlefield, no Templar could leave it. A knight who was completely cut off from his brethren could, however, rally temporarily to the standard of the Hospitallers or, failing that, to any other Christian banner he could reach. These concessions to the practicalities of battle remind us that the emphasis on the Beauceant was a matter of discipline and military efficiency, rather than some sort of cult fetish.
The most common expression in the Order’s military regulations is the command to do things au plus beau. Meaning both smartly and quickly, this was not just about appearances. Not a million miles away from the much later British Army’s ‘at the double’, it also hints that - notwithstanding the rules against personal pride - an aristocratic martial spirit permeated the Order. While these monks of God were required to show humility, the Order as a whole had an esprit de corps above and beyond any other military grouping in Christendom.
The Arabs were far more used to mass drills and fighting in formation than the Crusader forces, so the iron discipline and cohesive fighting style of the Templars were particularly valuable. Combined with the effectiveness of armour made from a triple layer of chainmail over padded leather, and fanatical faith, it made the Red Cross Knights – man-for-man - the most effective battlefield force of the time.
With such military clout and the prestige of the Order at an all-time high; with recruits, gifts and land and funds pouring in, de Payns could prepare to face his Maker in the knowledge that few men had done more to defend the True Faith.
The exact circumstances, and even place, of his death are now shrouded in mystery. Time out of mind, however, we have always commemorated the Founder of our Order on the 24th May every year, so it is believed that he died on this day in 1136.
He would have been 66, a decent age for a man of his times, hard life and achievements. By some accounts he breathed his last in his humble room in his beloved Temple headquarters. The 16th century historian Marco Antonio Guarini claimed, however, that Hugh was buried in the Church of San Giacomo at Ferrara.
There is also a tale that he died and was buried on the island of Bornholm, lying off the coast of Sweden although territorially today part of Denmark. The island does contain four ancient round churches, for which it is possible to make out a Templar connection. But – the claims of several modern ‘researchers’ notwithstanding – there is no real evidence that the Order ever harboured ambitions to join the Teutonic Knights on their ‘crusade’ and grab for lebensraum in the Baltic lands.
The German Templar clones were not even founded for another sixty years and did not really begin their ‘drang nach Osten’ until nearly a hundred years after Sir Hugh’s death.
Furthermore, the very idea of a Crusade against the pagans of north eastern Europe did not emerge from Rome until Pope Alexander III proposed it nearly thirty years later.
Would de Payns, whose whole adult life had been devoted to taking and preserving the still insecure Christian grip on the Holy Land, even have contemplated throwing the Order’s substantial but nonetheless limited resources into a solo effort, on a second front, against a completely new pagan foe? The suggestion is frankly ludicrous.
All the more so when we consider that the nearest confirmed Templar site to Bornholm lies south across the Baltic, beyond the port of Szczecin in what is now western Poland.
With just twenty-two miles inland from there to the Commandery at Rurka, the journey itself would have been short by Hugh’s standards. Yet the records show that the prince of Szczecin, Barnim I, only gave the Order the land for their wooden farm complex there in 1235. The property at no stage amounted to anything more than a small local estate. This was no springboard for a whole new war.
The desire of modern Scandinavian Templar enthusiasts to have a slice of the historic action and attraction on their doorstep is understandable, but our duty is to be accurate and honest. The ‘evidence’ for a Templar stronghold in Bornholm is at present very flimsy, while the claim that it is the final resting place of our first Master must be regarded as fantasy. We will come across – and brusquely refute – many more such unlikely claims as we progress through this true history of the Order.
Wherever Hugh de Payns went to his Maker, however, we may be sure that the knights who laid his mortal remains to rest would have spoken together not only of their grief and loss, but also of the words of Matthew 25:23
‘His lord said unto him, well done, good and faithful servant; thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord.’
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